Self-determination for sake of unity
The prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence raises vital strategic questions, argues Eddie Ford
Ambushing Theresa May just as Westminster MPs prepared to give her the power to formally trigger article 50, Nicola Sturgeon announced on March 13 that the Scottish government will be seeking to hold a second referendum on independence - effectively marking the beginning of years of pro-impendence campaigning and years of Westminster stonewalling.
The Scottish National Party leader and Scottish first minister stated that “the option of no change is no longer available”, as the UK government had “not moved even an inch in pursuit of compromise and agreement” about a “special deal” for Scotland over Brexit - and that even a good deal would be “significantly inferior” to the status quo.
Although it operates as a minority government with 63 MSPs out of 129, the SNP manifesto for last year’s Scottish parliamentary elections explicitly promised another referendum “if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people” - or, centrally, “if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will”. With Theresa May seemingly determined to go for a hard Brexit almost regardless of the consequences, and Scotland voting by 62% to remain in the European Union, there can be no doubt that there has been a “significant and material” change in the political situation. Quite logically, Sturgeon wants the vote to be held between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, before it is “too late” but after “the terms of Brexit are known”.
Of course, much to the objection of communists, Scotland has no guaranteed right to self-determination - only Westminster can authorise a new referendum, and so Sturgeon has to apply for a so-called ‘section 30 order’ under the Scotland Act. Scottish Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Tories have all said they would oppose Sturgeon’s referendum motion at Holyrood - but the result was always a forgone certainty. The six Scottish Green MSPs were pledged to give the SNP the necessary majority.
With total hypocrisy, May accused Sturgeon of playing “political games” and the SNP of having “tunnel vision” - talk about the pot calling the kettle black. She also dismissed Sturgeon’s referendum timetable, saying “now is not the time”. Indeed, the Scottish government’s move is “jeopardising” the UK’s negotiations with the EU - a Downing Street spokesperson tried to reassure us that the British government would negotiate an agreement with the EU that would be “taking into account the interests of all of the nations” of the UK, “working closely” with the devolved administrations. Feel better now?
Jeremy Corbyn was not enamoured by the idea of a second referendum either - the first one was “billed as a once-in-a-generation event”, he complained, claiming that “there is no appetite for another referendum”. However, he added, if the Scottish parliament votes for another referendum then Labour “will not block that democratic decision” at Westminster - which is surely the correct approach.
Meanwhile, Sturgeon told Holyrood on March 21 that Scotland’s future should not be “imposed upon us”. Any attempt to block or obstruct the referendum, she warned, “runs the real risk of undermining the democratic process” and would “shatter beyond repair any notion of the UK as a respectful partnership of equals” - although that is hard to see how a monarchical state could ever meet that description in any case.
Now seems the obvious time to prepare for a second referendum, especially given that opinion polls are twitching - albeit unevenly - towards pro-independence, which in some respects is a bit surprising, given the steep fall in the price of oil and general Brexit uncertainty. Indeed, some polls before Sturgeon’s March 13 announcement put the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes nearly neck and neck, with Ipsos Mori on February 24 actually having ‘yes’ ahead by one percent - quite a turn-around.1 There are also a relatively large number of undecided, meaning that about a third of people are at least partially open to persuasion either way.
Interestingly, showing the volatile or highly changeable nature of public opinion, the latest poll by BMG published on March 20 showed that 17% of those who voted both ‘yes’ in 2014 and ‘leave’ last year now want Scotland to stay in the UK, compared with only 8% of those who both voted ‘no’ and ‘remain’ switching to back independence now. We should not forget that six months before the first referendum, the margin was 30:70 in favour of ‘no’ - Alex Salmond was incredibly successful in turning round opinion towards independence. In other words, there is everything to play for.
Of course, we all know what happened to the Labour Party during the referendum - it became virtually indistinguishable from the Conservatives in the dreadful Better Together campaign, getting dubbed “red Tories” (that was probably too generous). Alastair Darling, the man in grey, was reduced to doing an uninspired double-act with the Tories, effectively becoming their agent in Scotland. Consequently Labour was punished for its sins in the general election, ending up with only one Scottish MP in Westminster. It is worth noting that Gordon Brown, who is credited with tilting opinion back towards ‘no’, did so from a Labour platform - not Better Together. The Labour Party mattered for the Tories last time round, but it clearly does not matter in the same way now.
Not that this has prevented Brown from another attempt at playing saviour of the union, this time by advocating a “patriotic” Scottish “third way” between the separatist “absolutism” of the SNP and the “inflexible, die-hard” Tory government in Westminster - which, Brown says, you could call “federal home rule”. This “federalistic option”, maintained the former prime minister, would involve Holyrood being given a raft of new powers after Brexit. He proposed that the Bank of England becomes the Bank of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to “reinforce the fact that the pound is for everyone”. Very nice.
SNP reaction to Brown’s ideas was predictably scornful. Angus Robertson, the SNP’s deputy and Westminster leader, described Brown’s federalism as “Brown-hog day” - yet again we are seeing Gordon Brown “being wheeled out when the union is in trouble”. His proposal could only work if voters actually believed Labour was likely to be in power to deliver it and, as Robertson put it, the Labour Party “is not in a position to deliver a pizza at the moment”. The chances of a big Labour revival in Scotland seem as far away.
In fact, we should not discount the possibility of a serious Tory revival north of the border. Many comrades on the left have been brought up in recent times to believe that Scotland is inherently radical and progressive - an eternal ‘Tory-free zone’. But those of us with longer memories, or at least the ability to read books, know that, apart from the central belt, Scotland was able to return a Tory majority back in the 1950s. With the SNP hell-bent on independence, and the Labour Party rent with division, the objective conditions might well exist for an improvement in Tory fortunes - though whether it happens or not is an entirely different question.
Obviously, the national question in the UK is now bound up with the EU question. There were some on the left who voted ‘no’ in the last referendum because they thought it would take the Scottish national question off the agenda once and for all, thus opening a space for working class politics. But this was always an illusion - the national question will not just go away. On the other hand, large sections of the left were swept up (despite previous programmatic statements) and intoxicated by nationalism: the Socialist Workers Party, Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Party Scotland, etc. We see the same lack of strategic thinking or vision with those, mainly the same people, who voted ‘no’ or Brexit/Lexit in the belief that somehow socialism would be advanced by Britain leaving the EU and/or the UK itself breaking up - something stressed repeatedly by Socialist Worker. What this does is treat the socialist project as an entirely negative and unappealing exercise: the nastier things get, the better things get for us and socialism. First Balkanisation, then us. Such an approach is totally unscientific and very dangerous, but the likes of the SWP are perversely determined never to learn any lessons.
We were also told ad nauseam by the SWP that Brexit would “shatter” the Tory Party - yet another illusion to add to all the others. We might have “Brown-hog day”, but we also have SWP-hog day, which is even more wretched.
As mentioned above, Scotland has no constitutional right to self-determination. Sovereignty lies with Westminster, not Holyrood. From the communist viewpoint, it as an elementary democratic right that nations have the right to self-determination. That does not mean that communists feel obliged to advocate separation - far from it. As a point of principle, in every way possible, Marxists fight for working class unity - something that is not predicated on the level of oppression, how big or small a country is, who attacked who first, or how terrible a history this or that country might have. We have no favoured nations or peoples. Rather, it is a political calculation to advance principled working class unity on all occasions. With regards to Scotland, that means communists are against separation, but support its right to self-determination - no contradiction or paradox. Any more than supporting abortion rights means we demand that all women who get pregnant should have a termination.
Under certain circumstances, though it might sound counterintuitive, separation can further working class unity - but most of the time it has the opposite effect. VI Lenin, growing up in the prison house of nations, supported the right of nations to self-determination - even if his preference right up to 1917 was for a centralised republic rather than a federal arrangement. That does not mean that Lenin advocated independence for Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Estonia, etc - unless they voted for it, which was a different matter altogether. After all, an alternative name for the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party could have been the Social Democratic Party of the Russian empire - ie, it wanted to unite and organise the different national sections of the working class who lived within the existing boundaries of the tsarist empire, not split them up into ever smaller groups. Ditto for Rosa Luxemburg’s Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania - the name signified not monarchist sympathies, but the desire to unite the Polish and Lithuanian working class against the existing (tsarist) state.
Colin Fox of the SSP is now saying that Nicola Sturgeon has got her timing all wrong, but this is utter nonsense - he has been itching for a second referendum ever since the failure, as he would see it, of the first one. It does have to be said that the SNP’s basic argument, and thus by extension the SSP’s, does not really work: we did not vote for Brexit; therefore we want to leave the UK in order to stay in the EU. So it is all right to be in a union with other EU states, but not in a union with England and Wales.
As for Gordon Brown’s “federal home rule”, we counterpose our own demands for a federal republic - for two main reasons. Firstly, the democratic republic involves a rupture with, or overthrow of, the existing constitutional monarchy system - we have no desire to simply replace Elizabeth II with an elected president, which would leave Britain as a mere quasi-democracy like the USA, France, Germany or Russia. Hardly what communists aspire to. Engels damningly called the French second republic a continuation of the Bonapartist monarchy, and what the hell is Donald Trump? No, we want a real democratic republic (ie, rule of the people, by the people, for the people), as that for us is the form that working class rule will take in Britain, and therefore necessarily involves a whole raft of far-reaching radical measures, which both massively extend democracy and involve draconian inroads into the sacred rights of property.
Secondly, we raise the demand for a federal democratic republic because it meets the current, legitimate aspirations of the peoples of Scotland and Wales to self-determination and simultaneously embodies the principle of working class unity. As Engels said in his Critique of the Erfurt programme, a federal republic would be “a step forward” in the British Isles. Socialist revolution is, almost by definition, the act of a united working class. Communists do not deny that we have a distinct general preference for centralised states, both today and under socialism. But the existence of a living national question in Scotland and Wales prevents us from immediately advocating a democratic centralist state in opposition to the present monarchical unity of the kingdom of England, the kingdom of Scotland, the principality of Wales and the province of Northern Ireland. We do not invent national grievances where there are none; nor do we ignore them.
For its part the position of the CPGB, as expressed in its Draft programme, could not be clearer. The working class must take the lead in the struggle for democracy in general and the democratic republic in particular. Without that socialism is impossible.